Year-old vaccine vial, first artifact in museum’s COVID-19 collection

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“We want to be able to capture the legacy of the pandemic, not just its immediacy. ”

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Someday, someday, this pandemic will be part of our collective past, the subject of a museum exhibit, and, when that day arrives, curators will want to thank Emily Gann.

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Gann is leading Ingenium’s efforts to collect artifacts indicative of the COVID-19 pandemic even as the health crisis continues to unfold.

“We have to think about the future curators who will be responsible for putting on an exhibition or sharing information about the pandemic in 25 or 50 years,” said Gann, curator of natural resources and industrial technologies for Ingenium.

“We want to make sure they have the stories and the material they need to present what we are going through right now in an accurate, compelling and well-balanced way.”

Ingenium, a Crown corporation, manages Ottawa’s three museums dedicated to science, technology and innovation. Like other museums around the world, it has launched a “Collecting Quick Responses” initiative to document and preserve artefacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the deadliest plagues in history.

In keeping with Ingenium’s mandate, Gann is looking for artifacts that tell the story of Canada’s response to the threat and how its scientists, health officials and business leaders have applied technology and innovation. to the hydra-headed challenge that is COVID-19.

The first artifacts were added to the collection: two empty vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine administered for the first time in Canada; a fan manufactured by the Canadian civil aviation firm CAE; and the 10 millionth face mask produced at the General Motors Oshawa plant for the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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Museum officials built oral histories around each object. With the vials, for example, they created an oral history of the rollout of immunization in Canada based on interviews with public health officials, nurses, doctors and scientists.

The first vaccines in Canada were administered on December 14, 2020 to healthcare workers in Toronto.

Anita Quidangen, a healthcare worker in Toronto, was the first frontline healthcare worker to receive a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine on December 14, 2020.
Anita Quidangen, a healthcare worker in Toronto, was the first frontline healthcare worker to receive a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on December 14, 2020. Photo by Ingenium /Handout

“We used our two flasks as a starting point and followed their trajectories,” Gann explained.

The oral history project examines the overseas production of vaccines, how they were stored at ultra-low temperatures, and distributed in clinics across the country. Four of the first five health workers to receive the vaccine were also interviewed, as well as the nurses who administered the injections.

Gann said the COVID-19 collection project began by speaking to a wide range of people affected by the pandemic. Each interview subject was asked the same question: “What is the most COVID subject?”

Their responses helped inform the museum’s initial acquisition strategy, which hinged around Canada’s response and adaptation to COVID-19. The next round of acquisitions should answer questions of vaccine equity.

Gann said the COVID-19 collection will be built over the next decade, but that could change depending on how the virus evolves.

“It’s not easy – we’ve never experienced anything on this scale before, so our process has to be somewhat fluid,” she said. “We want to be able to capture the legacy of the pandemic, not just its immediacy. “

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Pandemic artifacts will be stored in the new 36,000 square meter Ingenium Center and shared online through a museum web page.

As part of its COVID-19 collection, Ingenium has acquired the first vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine administered in Canada on December 14, 2020.
As part of its COVID-19 collection, Ingenium has acquired the first vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine administered in Canada on December 14, 2020. Photo by Ingenium /Handout

As museums collected artefacts many years, if not centuries, after the fact, the events of September 11 caused many people to reconsider this approach.

The New York Historical Society actively collected and preserved artefacts in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London dubbed the practice “rapid response collecting” and opened the first exhibition dedicated to such artefacts. acquisitions in 2014.

The exhibition explored “the major moments in recent history that have affected the world of design and manufacture”. His artifacts included an IKEA plush toy, a 3D printed gun and a pair of Primark jeans, acquired after the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in April 2013.

More recently, as part of its rapid response approach, the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired the Tampax Cup, a reusable menstrual cup that the museum describes as part of “a significant consumer shift away from single-use plastics. “. The museum said the acquisition also filled a significant gap in its collection, which had few items explicitly linked to periods.

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